THE NEED FOR MYTH: How Mindanao Chanters Tell the Tale

Myth, and by extension, the epic, is labeled ‘’allegorical’’ today, and has been so demythologized in debates between mythos (fantasy) versus the logos (rational argument) that through the ages fewer people recognize the epic for its grandeur, elevated language, historicity and, in Northop Frye’s term, ‘’highly mimetic’’ qualities.

Fiction, specifically the novel, popular entertainment and the proliferation of Disney’s interpretation of fairy tales have supplanted native storytellers to such an extent that the chanting of the ethno-epics, a favored term since there is no national epic, have become ‘’occasional’’ treats during weddings, wakes, political or community events, and for research purposes.

Talaandig Monobo chanter Florina Saway of Lanpatan, Bukidnon, at 66 in 2015. /Photo by Rene Adlawan

Epic chanters have become a rarity these days, and if they are available, researchers and scholars need to seek permission and negotiate before indigenous councils or through their contacts in universities and museums to have access to the chanters.

Chanters fetch high fees of up to five figures for chanting and for which they have been trained to narrate before audiences in their own communities and in the context of their respective cultures.

his nut-shelled characteristic of the chanters in this article are easily shared by the world’s chanters for oral narratives fulfill a community function where individuals develop a sense of community, and at the same time, believe in the existence of another world of myth promising a utopianlife.

Paul Ricoeur in Laurence Coupe’s Myth argues that ‘’myth may imply a hierarchy, but it also implies a horizon: disclosure of unprecedented worlds, an opening on to possible worlds which transcend the established limits of our actual world.’’

It was E. Arsenio Manuel, on the other hand, who claimed that every ethnic community must have an epic.

If we go by this claim, the number of ethno-epics from Mindanao’s twenty-one lumad and thirteen Islamized groups could be staggering, taking into consideration the numerous episodes, and their variations. The variations, because oral, depend on the creativity, the goals and personalities of individual tellers and the situation where they are at during chanting.

The late Dr. Elena G. Maquiso had collected and published five volumes of the Ulahingan (from ulahing meaning ‘’to sing’’).This Arumanen-Livunganen Manobo epic of the Northern Cotabato area, and again because oral, has variants shared with Northern, Central and parts of Southern Mindanao.

Maquiso lad likened the main storyline to the kepu’unpu’un, a clump of bamboos, and its bamboo shoots, the sengedurug as episodes, of the main story. The variants of these episodes are just as numerous but the main storyline is kept intact.

A sixth volume of the Ulahingan published by Earl Jude Cleofe is now available and hopefully, the numerous tapes, already digitized by Silliman University be transcribed and published in order to evaluate what new tales along with their variants have been recorded. The find, along with other researches on the epic, must be shared to the nation and not just kept in archives.

The prospect of putting together and knowing, much less translating, and assessing the numerous ethno-epics from Mindanao with all its linguistic and cultural diversities is therefore staggering and requires government support to researchers and scholars.

These may also be realized if the ageing chanters or, the bearers of tradition, pass on their knowledge to the new generation to tell the stories of their ancestors not only for their entertainment value but for the history, cultural values, mores, beliefs and worldviews that often result in pride of race.

For the outsider inured by Western tales, the epics Mindanao leave him wondering where these stories replete with fantastic and magical elements in the mortal world, in heaven or in the underworld have been kept all along.

From the memory of chanters, these epic worlds are structured, aristocratic, and bloody as they are spiritual. They likewise give us lessons from genealogy to pharmacology to conservation and the survival of families during wars and famines.

These worlds are peopled by mortals, divine beings, the shape-shifting diwatas that help the highest god to do his bidding among mortals, the chosen or ruling families who eventually leave their earthly abode for the heavenly world aboard a sarimbar (salimbal) and the heroes who, aided with magic, diwatas and spirits (tonong in Meranao) perform their duties for the greater good.

Epics also give us a glimpse of the adventures of Mindanao’s fictive heroes such as the Ulahingan’s Begyasan (also Mendayawi), the heavenly name of Agyu, his older brother Pemulew and Agyu’s son Bayvayan; the heroines Yambungan, Mungan and Lekumbing (also Tigyekuwa), narrated by a tala-ulahingan (singer); the darangen‘s (song) Bantugan, Mabanih and Lumna (chanted by onor); Indarapatra and Sulayman, both epics shared by the Maranaos and Maguindanaos; Bato Lakungan of the Subanen epic Ag Tobig neg Keboklagan; and, Tudbulol of the Tbolis, to mention a few.

In 2001, this writer met Talaandig Manobo chanter Florina Saway, 53, of Lantapan, Bukidnon, who was then an apprentice to her mother Victoria Binataw Baristol, then 85, considered the accomplished chanter of the Talaandig at the time. Florina could only succeed her mother as chanter of the community after her mother dies.

Florina belongs to the fifth generation of singers and is descended from the legendary Apu Agbibilin and is the granddaughter of Datu Kinulintang, a chanter and bearer of tradition.

Florina, in tracing her journey towards becoming a chanter told this writer that her mother began to train as a chanter because she heard the call of the diwatas. Her commitment was made before the community though a ritual sealed by white chicken’s blood.

A Kulamanon Manobo chanter from Arakan, Cotabato./ Photo by Cherly Adlawan

The Sarimbar.The illustration shows a scene from the Ulahingan. ‘’While Agyu’s people rode in the Salimbar, Puhak, a giant man was supplied with a ladder. The Sarimbar rested on the seven layers of heaven and the people partook a little of the food supplied to them.’’ /Illustration by Nonoy P. Estarte, courtesy of the Xavier University Museo de Oro

Bayvayan, son of Agyu, the first chanter of the world.He was destined to remain on earth and experience life’s hardships. His followers who refused to accept his leadership were transformed into stones./ Illustration by Nonoy P. Estarte (acrylic on illustration board l, 1980), courtesy of the Xavier University Museo de Oro


Training began through knowing and understanding the stories chanted or sang in Binukid by the chanters before her, the storylines known to everybody in the community.

But it had to take 15 years for Nanay Victoria to be declared the chanter of the community, after being deemed skilled enough to narrate their cultural heritage, but always validating the stories each time she sang before the community.

Thirteen years later when this writer revisited the Talaandig community for the third time in 2014, Florida, now 66, gave a more confident performance about a Calm Realm but not before warming up with a shot of rhum.

Florina seemed to have perfected what her mother and grandmother Basilia, another chanter had taught her two singing styles, the lingaketan, a colorful and elaborate singing of the epic and the pamubungan where one sings the main plot without elaboration of the narrative’s motifs.

Often, the chanting lasts from four to eleven hours and is preferably done in the evenings. All chantings begin with a prayer petitioning the gods or spirits for guidance. This is called pamahra in the Ulahingan.

About 30 years ago, this writer experienced for for the first time how Maranao onors (chanter/singer) sang episodes of the Darangen.

At the Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology (MSU-IIT), a male onor shared the stage with his mentor, a female onor. He was an apprentice then and his bayok (singing style) contrasted with that of his mentor’s.

Their names escape this writer now but these two were removed from their communities to sing before an audience composed of academics and students.

The female onor, dressed and made up for the part, sang of the plight of one of Prince Bantugan’s wives who was ostracized on mere suspicion that she accepted a gift from a male admirer. The male onor, an apprentice was conscious of his audience but he went through a battle scene singing in bayok which was loudly rendered, guttural, and tremulous.

Like Florina, the two Maranao onors had been trained to memorize and dramatize in classical Meranao selected episodes of the Darangen depending upon their inclinations, goals and personalities.

They had to hone their skills at storytelling and if they choose to perform in bayok they are called onor pababayok while the onor who plays the kulintang well is called onor pakukulintang.

Often, onors learn not only to sing but to play the kulintang and learn dance movements using props in keep with the rhythmic beats like a fan, a comb or a handkerchief and as aid to memory while chanting. Onors also show their skill at juggling and balancing the basal (wooden sticks) before the audience during lulls in playing the kulintang.

To this, Luminambos Dimatunday, 50, a mother of five showed off her signing and dancing in performing the story of Alongan Piseyanan, a son of Bantugan who ended his half-brother’s bullying. She performed this episode during the recently held Performatura, a literary festival at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) and during the Read-Along for children sponsored by the Philippine Daily Inquirer

Darangen chanter Luminambos Dimatunday at CCP’S Performatura Festival./ Photo courtesy of the CCP

Episode of the Darangen are usually kept in kirims or scrolls written in Arabic. Some families own kirims handed down through generations. During the American occupation of Lanao, schoolchildren were made to write down these episodes in notebooks.


A sample of a kirim. /Photo by JD Enriquez; courtesy of Johana Gandamra of Marawi City

The Mindanao State University with support from the Toyota Foundation published 17 cycles in eight volumes of the Darangen. In 2005, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared the epic as one of the Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

An episode from the Darangen is usually performed for two nights. Deemed the repository of Maranao culture, many contemporary Maranaos take their cue regarding the courtship, marriage and other customary laws recorded in the Darangen.

Today, some Maranaos in Marawi City are gathering as many episodes of Darangen, and other folk materials to be kept for posterity, a joint project between the MSU and the City Tourism Office.


Scene from Integrated Performing Arts Guild of the MSU-IIT’s (IPAG) interpretation of an episode in Darangen, “The Abduction of Lawanen,” featuring Lani Fernandez./Photo courtesy of the CCP.

In the last 20 years, public performances become rare owing to the objections of fundamentalist Muslim clerics who had declared that such materials and their performances are un-Islamic.

But there is no doubt that the chanting of the epics engages a community in the recollection of a glorious past where heroes negotiated the skies on flying kerchiefs, flying shield, and on occasions, leap across hills in a wink of an eye or, magical, messenger rings fly to faraway places, where, among other things, a deep well exists in the middle of the sun, and when thirsts are quenched, heroes take respites during battle for seven days.

As the battle rages, magical shield automatically form a wall to protect the sleeping heroes while the weapons take a life of their own, and continue fighting from where heroes had left off.

Most surprising of all is a running conversation between talking fabrics and talking needles when heroines are at their needlework. The flowers in pots are as gossipy, and they turn their heads to catch the latest news about the ruling family or the conflicts among members of the Council of Datus.

These epic qualities should move the government to include the teaching of our epic lore among our schoolchildren so our epic horoes, whose exploits are just as magical, purposive and exciting, may be appreciated alongside Western, fictive heroes like Superman and Batman.

Promoting our indigenous heritage is one way of fulfilling our expectations of cross-regional understanding among all peoples of our country.

In these times when our nation desires independence from foreign interventions, educating ourselves of our folklore, in particular the ethno-epics could bolster patriotism, and fulfill our subconscious need for myth.


Note:Meranao refers to language, and Maranao refers to a person. Orthoepy of Maranao words and their spelling have yet to be standardized.

Acknowledgments: Hobart P. Savior, director of the Xavier University Culture and Arts Office; the MSU-IIT IPAG; the Philippines Yearbook (2001); Johana Gandamra; Zayda O. Macarambon, MSU-IIT Cultural Development Office; Office of Publication and Information’s Jez Orbe and John Daniel Enriquez; and Cultural Center of the Philippines’ Herminio S. Beltran Jr. and Jasmin Tresvalles.


Christine F. Godinez Ortega, the author, is the head of the National Committee on Literary Arts of the NCCA. She is also with the faculty of the Department of English, College of Arts and Sciences, and in the director of the Office of Publication and Information under the Office of the Chancellor at the Mindanao State University-Illigan Institute of Technology. She is the co-founder and director of the Illigan National Writers Workshop. She had published a collection of her poetry, and her poems, articles and reviews have appeared in numerous publications.


The article was originally published in Agung, the official newsletter of the National Commission for Culture and Arts (NCCA), on its July-August 2016 issue. With permission to reprint from NCCA


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